A Father and Son Theory of Mind

In recent years, academic developmental psychologists have emphasized a developmental milestone related to what is referred to by the technical term, Theory of Mind (TOM). Although Gosse does not use that term (he is writing decades before the term was coined by psychologists), Father and Son contains some some fascinating descriptions of what we would refer to today as the development of TOM in a child.

Human adults have a well developed TOM, by which is meant that we humans are consciously aware that “I have a mind, and you have a mind, and these are two separate entities such that there might be some things I know in my mind that you do not know, and vice versa.” Some species of animals appear to have a rudimentary TOM, although it may not be conscious and is not as fully developed as it is in humans (some Great Ape species such as Bonobos, and perhaps certain species of dolphins and whales appear to have the most highly developed TOMs among animals).

One set of experiments that has provided evidence for at least a rudimentary TOM in some animal species involves looking for instances of deception. The rationale for carrying out these experiments is that an animal should not have the cognitive wherewithal to participate in acts of deception unless it knows (perhaps subconsciously) that it (the deceiver) has certain information available that the deceived individual does not know. A prototypical experiment is to throw some desirable food into a compound where a group of monkeys is housed. If all of the animals see the food being thrown into the compound, what happens is that the dominant male eats all of the food it wants first and then the rest of the group gets the left-overs. But what would happen if the food were thrown in under conditions where a low-ranking monkey could see the food being throw in, but the dominant monkey did not notice what was happening because his view was blocked? In this case, if the low-ranking monkey were to simply approach the food, this act would be noticed by other monkeys who would follow and the dominant monkey would come over to see what was going on. However, what actually sometimes happens under these circumstances is that the low-ranking monkey who sees the food performs an act of deception to divert the attention of the group. The monkey makes an alarm call that is interpreted by other monkeys as [roughly] “there is a hawk or eagle flying overhead, protect the infants”. All of the monkeys in the group become engaged in looking for the eagle/hawk and/or if rustling up the infants. Meanwhile, the low-ranking monkey rushes over to eat the goodies.

Human children do not have a fully operational TOM at birth. Some rudimentary aspects of a TOM such as lying (a form of deception) show up relatively early, but more sophisticated aspects of TOM do not typically show up until at least 4 to 5 years of age. Here is how a prototypical experiment is conducted to demonstrate the operation of a higher order TOM with children. The experimenter works with a confederate in a preschool setting. The confederate is brought into the room and asked to hide some object in full view of the children (call this location A). Then the confederate is asked to leave the room. While the confederate is out of the room, the experimenter asks the children to think of a new hiding place for the object, and the object is then moved to the new location (call this location B) in full view of the children. Once this has been completed, the children are asked the following question, “When [the confederate] comes back into the room where do you think he will go to look for the object?” Before the age of 4 or 5, most children respond, “location B”. In other words, they do not yet have a TOM sophisticated enough to realize that they (their own minds) have knowledge that is not available to others (the mind of the confederate).

Early in Father and Son when Goose is 6 years old there are two poignant examples in which Goose describes the emergence of his own TOM [Given his socially isolated rearing situation, it is not surprising that he reached these milestones a couple years later than would be typical].

The first example happens when Gosse first notices that he knows some things about which his Father is ignorant. [unfortunately my ebook did not have page numbers so I can not identify exactly where this occurs]

“One morning in my sixth year, my Mother and I were alone in the morning-room, when my Father came in and announced some fact to us. … I remember turning quickly, in embarrassment, and looking into the fire. The shock to me was as that of a thunderbolt, for what my Father had said ‘was not true’. … [T]o me it meant an epoch. Here was the appalling discovery, never suspected before, that my Father was not as God, and did not know everything. The shock was not caused by any suspicion that he was not telling the truth, as it appeared to him, but by the awful proof that he was not, as I had supposed, omniscient.”

The second example occurs in the section where Goose describes the incident during which he damages a fountain in the yard at his house. His father comes into the house

“… and I sat frozen with alarm, waiting to be denounced. But my Mother remarked on the visit of the plumbers two or three days before, and my Father instantly took up the suggestion. … [T]he theory that my Father was omniscient or infallible was now dead and buried.”

And this revelation (this passing of a developmental milestone of attaining a more sophisticated TOM to use modern terminology), was the start of a long progression of developmental change in the son that is traced throughout the rest of the book. This is foreshadowed later in the same paragraph, “My father, as a deity, as a natural force of immense prestige, fell in my eyes to a human level. In future, his statements about things in general need not be accepted implicitly.”


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2013 Selections, Father and Son and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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